Like other presidents in recent decades, regardless of political party, Obama has pushed for fast track authority to slam free trade bills through without taking into account the concerns of American workers or those concerned about environmental issues. Obama’s goal is to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement covering nations from Chile to Brunei, would continue allowing American companies to operate without consequences. So far Congressional Democrats have rejected the TPP because it would ship even more American jobs overseas and increase the environmental impact of American manufacturing. Organized labor is pointing out the environmental impact of such a deal. Says the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, “Let’s not exacerbate the pollution problems of the world and perpetuate human exploitation by including nations like Malaysia and Vietnam in a free trade pact, as the TPP would do.”
Like other trade agreements such as NAFTA, the TPP would effectively encourage American corporations to move operations into countries with terrible human rights, labor rights, and environmental records, providing no legal framework to make companies responsible for what happens in outsourced factories. It allows companies to take advantage of Vietnam’s 28 cent an hour minimum wage and buildings that kill workers in fires. It continues the outsourcing of American jobs, the increase in income inequality, and the conditions of the New Gilded Age.
Of course, the TPP could mandate better conditions for labor. The House initially rejected NAFTA’s renewal in 1997, forcing Clinton to compromise and include a labor enforcement mechanism in a trade deal with Cambodia. Proposed by UNITE, a union decimated by the outsourcing of the clothing industry, the U.S. provided Cambodia incentives to allow workers to unionize in return for an increased export quota. They received $50 a month for a
48-hour week, received a dozen federal holidays, vacation days, sick leave, and maternity leave. The plan worked, at least initially. Overseen by the International Labour Organization, Cambodian clothing exports skyrocketed at the same time that union density grew and apparel makers signed contracts with workers. It was not a perfect system—factory owners tried to avoid the regulations and coached workers on what to say to ILO inspectors. But it still made enormous improvements and showed how government could still intervene in a global marketplace for good. But like most trade agreements, this one came to an end. With the decline of multi fibre quota system in 2004, the U.S.-Cambodian trade pact also ended and its replacement lost this mechanism. Within weeks of the quota ending in 2005, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Now even freer than ever before to concentrate in nations with the worst workplaces standards, Cambodian labor saw its union pacts quickly scuttled and its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by 17 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011.
So the TPP could create safe and reasonably paying work when American companies move overseas but of course it won’t. It could mandate that American companies sign the Bangladesh Accord or a similar agreement, which European companies have signed to mandate improved conditions in outsourced Bangladeshi apparel factories. It provides money to upgrade the sweatshops and at least a minimal legal framework for enforcement. Of course the American manufacturers have refused to sign this, led by Wal-Mart and Gap. There’s no evidence the American government has any desire to pressure them to do so, but regardless, we know that terrible labor conditions have not blocked Obama’s desire for the TPP to pass. It’s a shame because the American government could do a lot to improve the lives of overseas workers producing goods for the American market and it chooses not to.